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Gearing up for World War 2.1?

Columnists are not supposed to write about the same subject twice in a row, and only last week I wrote my umpteenth piece saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not going to invade Ukraine. But US President Joe Biden just gave us a hard date for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it’s this week, probably Wednesday. 

Biden didn’t say when World War 2.1 will follow, but the constant references to the ‘worst crisis since 1939’ or the ‘worst war in Europe since 1945’ suggests that it will be along shortly afterwards. This newspaper will be quite cross if they don’t have a piece from me recanting my error when the Russian tanks roll, so I feel obliged to write about it again.

Unfortunately, I can’t recant. Even the massed choirs of all 16 US intelligence agencies (I’m not making that up), singing the Hallelujah Chorus and imploring me to believe, cannot persuade me that the Russians are coming. Only when I see their massed tanks rolling across the Ukrainian border will I accept that Putin is that stupid.

He’s wicked, certainly: he really puts hits out on people, like the KGB agent he once was. He’s obsessed with regaining control of the lost empire Russians call the ‘Near Abroad,’ and quite willing to run a huge, dangerous bluff in the hope of making some progress on that agenda. But he is not stupid. Nobody who stays in power in Russia for 22 years is stupid.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is getting fed up with all these hysterical Western politicians and pundits. Last Saturday he said “I think there’s too much out there about a full-scale war from Russia, and people are even naming dates. The best friend of our enemies is panic in our country, and all this ‘information’ only creates panic. It doesn’t help us.”

Or consider the assessment of the Ukrainian Centre for Defence Strategies, a non-profit think tank in Kyiv.

In late-January it issued an assessment that “in general, a large-scale Russian offensive operation against Ukraine in 2022 is unlikely even judging by purely military requirements.  This is evidenced by a lack of the required number of troops for such an operation, which should be in the hundreds of thousands (to conduct active hostilities against Ukraine).” 

The highest figure quoted for the total number of Russian troops alleged to be within a few days of the Ukrainian border is 147,000, and more than half of those have been in their present locations for a year or longer. That sounded ridiculously low for an actual invasion of a country with a population of 43 million people, so I did a little checking. 

The German invasion of Poland in 1939 was the start of World War 2.0, and Poland then was a pretty good match for Ukraine now: about the same population, although only half the size of Ukraine. The two countries even share a long border. So how many troops did the Germans need to invade Poland on Sept. 1, 1939?

Oh. One and a half million. And although the Germans had better machines and really good generals, the Polish resistance was still pretty serious until the Russians invaded Poland from the other side two weeks later in fulfilment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Almost 20,000 German soldiers were killed or missing in action in one month, and 30,000 were wounded.

I’m not claiming that Russian casualties would be the same in an invasion of Ukraine now, but they would certainly be big enough to alarm the folks at home. Moreover, it’s even doubtful that 147,000 Russian soldiers could actually overrun Ukraine.

They could grab a few border areas, and overwhelming Russian air power would protect them from counterattacks, but that’s as big as this crisis could get. I really don’t think it will even get that big. Maybe a mini-offensive in the southeastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, which are already partly Russian-controlled, but nothing more.

It feels a bit lonely out here, when lots of people who claim to know better are using apocalyptic terms like ‘imminent invasion.’ I’ll apologize profusely if I’m getting this wrong, but it feels to me like some Central Intelligence Agency people spotted some minor Russian troop movements and rang the alarm for domestic political purposes or just for fun.

Putin, ever the opportunist, decided to feed the flames and see what he could get out of the ensuing ‘crisis.’ Biden, needing to rebuild his tough-guy image after the Afghanistan bug-out, took the same decision. The Ukrainians don’t believe a word of it, but nobody listens to them. And there will not be a hot war in Europe, or even a new Cold War.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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  1. My view is that Putin is creating the illusion of a large scale invasion. His real objective is to annex Donbas and take control of high ethic Russian population areas around Crimea. He is betting everyone will be relieved when a big war doesn’t happen and he will get away with it.

    I think the Ukrainians should prepare for an all out assault on the Donbas should Russia cross the border. If they don’t, Putin just has to wait a decade or so and it all his. The attention span of NATO just isn’t that long.

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